While the mere thought of another winter makes my teeth chatter, I do see one consolation in the months ahead: comfort food. Like bears and squirrels that prepare for the cold with a feeding frenzy, I intend to fortify myself as well, and the spicier the food, the better, which brings us to the pleasures of jerk.
A Caribbean version of barbecue, jerk is a style of cooking in which meat is either rubbed with dry spices or marinated with a wet spice paste before being grilled over an open fire. Applying this technique to humble chicken parts suddenly transforms them into the succulent, savory, spicy, smoky dish known as jerk chicken, a well-known Jamaican comfort food. While no two jerk recipes are alike, the signature flavors of allspice berries and fiery Scotch bonnet peppers are prominent, along with such spices as cloves, cinnamon, scallions, nutmeg, thyme, garlic, and salt.
Jerk is also Jamaica's ubiquitous fast food: Repurposed 55-gallon oil drums cut in half lengthwise serve as makeshift grills at many street-corner jerk stands. In Baltimore, however, we are lucky to have a nice selection of Jamaican restaurants that run the gamut from hole-in-the-wall carry-out to sit-down, that feature a whole host of traditional island favorites such as curry goat, oxtails, escoveitch fish, and, of course, jerk chicken. In a recent search for the city's perfect jerk, I was surprised to find a certain uniformity in the handful of different Jamaican spots I tried. All places, for example, serve a leg and thigh-hacked into manageable pieces with a cleaver-atop a bed of rice and peas (read: rice and beans) with a small side of sauteed cabbage and, if you're lucky, a piece of sweet fried plantain. There were standouts, for sure, but none of the food was bad, and I would happily eat at any of these places again.
My first stop was Culture (512 Pennsylvania Ave.,  669-9115) in Seton Hill. Though they've been around since 2005, I was unfamiliar with the place but felt immediately at home when I was greeted by Bob Marley blaring from their sound system. They get the prize for the cheapest lunch special, at only $5.50, which included a whole portion of sweet and smoky jerk. The meal filled me up nicely, and my only criticism was the mushy rice.
Another place that's been around for a while-14 years to be exact-is Caribbean Paradise (1818 N.Charles St.,  332-8422), located in the busy Station North corridor. With two levels of seating, the bar/restaurant never seems busy. But the husband/wife team of chefs Eric and Barbara, Jamaica natives, serve up a heaping platter of jerk chicken slathered in dark, rich gravy, along with all the fixings, for $8.50.
A little further north, on 25th Street between Maryland and Howard, St. Mary's Restaurant and Bar (120 W. 25th St.,  889-9600) and Fresh and Clean Cuisine (110 W. 25th St.,  261-5052) are practically neighbors, and both have been around for about the last four years. St. Mary's douses its jerk with a sauce that pushes it more toward the sweet side; I tend to favor Fresh and Clean's more balanced jerk, which is smoky, sweet, and spicy. Fresh and Clean also gets points for the perfectly prepared rice and peas, veggie medley, and sweet plantain that comes with its meal.
It's easy to bypass the hand-painted sign that announces Real Deal (3403 Greenmount Ave.,  235-6090) in Waverly, but this place has proven itself to be one of the stalwarts on the block. In my book, holes in the wall tend to feature the best food, and this place was no disappointment with its generous portion of well-grilled and spiced jerk for $9. In addition, they included a big helping of sauteed veggies.
The Park Heights community of Northwest Baltimore has long been home to a significant Caribbean population, so it's only right that there's some jerk worth traveling for there. When I'm in the neighborhood, I frequent established spots like Montego Bay (3602 W. Rogers Ave.,  367-3450), which is also a full-service bakery and catering outfit. Their jerk-the most expensive platter I came across, at $9.75-comes slathered in rich, dark, and complex sauce. Just around the corner, Judy's Island Grill (5216 Park Heights Ave.,  367-0272) provides a pleasant sit-down option to enjoy your jerk meal at $8, but the sauce is a little too sweet for my liking.
Now, when you're looking to escape the chill this winter, you should be able to get your blood flowing with the help of some local jerk.